Gavin Stern: A nickel too far

BY GAVIN STERN

Published October 25, 2007

I always carry a little change in my pocket. The habit stems from my fear of breaking a dollar then having to suffer the rest of the day with 98 cents sloshing around in my pants. So when a panhandler asks me to spare some change, I'm faced with a dilemma. Do I surrender my change and risk having to break a dollar later or do I come up with an excuse and walk away really, really fast? Many students choose the latter. At this point, I really don't blame them.

When I first arrived at the University three years ago, panhandlers seemed like a new phenomenon. That's probably because I hail from the economically prosperous city of West Palm Beach, Florida. We had our share of shaggy vets in wheelchairs holding signs by the side of the road, but never in 10 years was I approached by an individual asking for spare change.

So when Ronnie, Ann Arbor's best known panhandler, first hit me with that unforgettable line: "Spare any change, my good friend?" I was simultaneously startled and obliged to give him my 23 cents. It just felt right at the time. I figured if someone was willing to stand out in the cold and ask strangers for change, then he must really need it.

Sadly, the panhandlers with the most overt acts - and the heaviest pockets - probably aren't asking out of necessity. It took quite a few bad experiences for the sad truth to sink in. First, there was the guy on State Street who took my money and ran off yelling that it was for booze. Great. Then there was the really big guy who penetrated my Starbucks bubble to ask for a few bucks. I offered him food. He demanded my wristwatch. Fantastic.

Even Ronnie has lost his charm. The last time I ran into "my good friend," Ronnie and a few of his associates had banded together to turn the Engineering Arch into a change gauntlet (at night, no less). That all three of them sported leather jackets and cell phones didn't exactly garner my sympathy. Clearly, these panhandlers had no respect for the people they claim to need so much.

So when The Statement ran an article that glorified Ronnie's showmanship and success (Not everyone who makes their living through advertising wears a tie to work, 10/10/2007), I was furious. As much as I like Ronnie, panhandling is not a legitimate profession in my book unless you're really homeless. Then it's called begging. To encourage otherwise cheats the neediest members of our society out of their share of our guilt. Literally.

If you're fortunate enough to escape the arch with your change intact, you might actually run into a real homeless person. I consistently find one of them curled up in a ball by William Street, holding, of all things, a pan. But since he actually looks like he needs the spare change, he didn't appear to collect nearly as much as his clean-cut counterparts. Apparently, just looking poor doesn't cut it these days. Either the more personable (but less needy) panhandlers have heightened the standard, or the passersby have become too cynical to care.

Either way, a man went hungry while another lined his leather pockets.

Legitimate panhandlers don't need a circus act or a scare tactic to show that they need our help. They just need our compassion, which has been spread too thin. So before you dip into your pockets, take a moment to consider why. Is it because this person really needs the money or because they're clever enough to know where and how to get it? Then consider the most important question: Am I really helping the right person? If he has on designer shoes - keep walking. You're certain to step over someone who really needs it.

Gavin Stern can be reached at gavstern@umich.edu.